President’s October 2020 Column

Shana Tova!

I hardly need to recount the series of events that have taken place from the storm within and flu throughout. We are each uniquely living our own experience. These days of awe invite each to take the chance, in silence, to recount the actions of our lives and how we could improve.

As we are each living our own path, we choose to surround ourselves with inputs from the outside world. Those choices, the things we read, watch, surf and the folks we engage with, all, change us, even if imperceptible by the viewer within.

For myself, I enjoy learning about science. Maybe it’s the fact that its basis is experimentation (coming up with ideas and to be active in the process of discovery), verification (look critically for flaws), and peer review (invite others to challenge the process). One source I read is the monthly periodical, Scientific American.

Last month marked the 175th year since the magazine was first published. For decades (of its lustrous past) this magazine was an authority to shed light on the many discoveries that gave rise to modernity. This marks an anniversary before Hertz and Maxwell invented radio and discovery of electro-magnetic fields, to current articles describing discoveries such as LIGO that demonstrated (what Einstein predicted) that gravitational waves exist – this was proven as scientists and engineers built a 2-mile laser arm detector that is capable of noticing the length disturbance of one thousandth the width of a single proton!

Scientific American took the opportunity to create a special addition for its 175th birthday. This issue was dedicated to taking a critical look at its own past, as a publisher. The editor editorializing themselves.

This issue recounts its brand as offered up by 10 generations of journalists and scientists, editors that preceded. In the title article “Reckoning with our Mistakes”, Jen Schwartz (senior editor) – writes, “It is impossible to make an exhaustive assessment of our mistakes, but we have scoured our archives for some of the most illustrative”.

This sounds like what we as Jews are invited to do each year at this time; but do we? Can we truly say we make such an exhaustive search of our decisions, how we treated loved ones, each mistake we made, and so on … for this last year? It’s often easier for us humans to recall how we were offended by another or how the world dealt us an undeserved blow.

Do we dare an audit of ourselves? Imagine your life as a magazine, a record of all that was said in your name – then as if with a yellow hi-liter to concentrate on those times when you were not your best. Would we truly want to read the transcript? Is this not what these days of awe are about?

The senior editor goes on to expound that, “our identity has changed significantly over the decades”. Who amongst us does not feel the tug of one’s own history, the many relationships, and through it all, hasn’t your identity also been altered? Do you welcome this change or deny its presence within you?

She goes on to write about her magazine, “One thing that has remained fairly consistent is the magazine’s position that science could spread prosperity and solve the world’s problems”. You might think this naïve, as we see that politics exerts some influence on the outcomes of prosperity and world problems. But more importantly, it is the vision itself, to help enable good this equates to the Jewish philosophy encompassed in the phrase tikkun olam.

What is your personal constitution, your constant “reason to be”? Do you view your life, your Jewish faith, as helping to spread positivity and solve your life issues as they arise? Most of us take little chance to define and express our personal convictions, those that stay consistent through one’s life. This holiday, this season, invites just that.

Senior editor Schwartz goes on to reveal that “science is done by fallible humans … and [reported on] by fallible human editors”.  Is that our admission for these days of reflection, that we too recognize that we are only human and fallible? So fallible that we may not even be capable of an accurate review or remember our failings over a lifetime, yet alone a single year. Is it possible to review one’s behaviors, actions, and conversations without erroring on the side of anemia?

The editor was also critical that in 1868 the magazine sided with general William Sherman, the same warrior that was known for his scorched earth policy and slaughtered millions of bison – single handedly responsible for practically wiping out the entire species. All in the name of manifest destiny at the cost of Native American rights and lives.

They too were influenced by the times they lived. Today their self-rebuke extends to how the magazine demonstrated slight when it came to women as equals in the science community and the lack of opportunity for African-Americans in the sciences connected to sociological structures that still exist today.

As we enter these days of awe, do we realize just how privileged our lives are? Globally, there are 700,000,000 people that go with adequate food, 60 million additional in just the last 5 years. 60% of the world’s population lack a toilet and if had such a luxury, lack running water for it. This holiday also invites us to note how fortunate, comfortable, and free we are if we only take stock.

I invite you to welcome these days of awe, as a publisher of your own novel, as a scientist willing to take a critical eye, as an American conscious that we each hold privilege when compared to many others.

We as Jews are not absolved by speaking our sins to a man in a darkened box, or fasting, or by just praying. Rather, these initial first days of our new year start by asking us to reflect and be honest with ourselves.

I wish you and your loved ones a healthy, happy, and reflective new year.

Robert Becker